Advisory lifted, but Shawnigan water worries linger

Island Health lifted a no-water-use advisory for the south end of Shawnigan Lake Tuesday, but the move did little to allay residents’ fears about a contaminated-soil landfill uphill from the lake.

Medical health officer Dr. Paul Hasselback said laboratory tests and inspections by B.C.’s Ministry of Environment determined that runoff from the landfill during heavy rainfall last Friday posed no risk to public health.

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“We’re fairly confident that the water can be used for normal purposes at this point in time,” Hasselback said.

The ministry said its tests found no evidence that the runoff came into contact with contaminated soils stored at the quarry.

“There is no evidence of a breach,” said Environment Minister Mary Polak. “And, actually, that’s borne out by the test results.”

Island Health stated that a second incident Tuesday involving the “non-containment” of surface water posed no risk to the public.

“On-site inspections suggest that the flow of water across the site, the modifications for site containment since Friday, [the] volume of water released, and the dilution in high stream flow conditions all maintained protection of the lake,” the agency said.

Sonia Furstenau, a director with the Cowichan Valley Regional District, said the test results provide little comfort to area residents.

“The water sampling at this point isn’t the issue,” she said. “The issue is that the engineering is supposed to be fail-safe, and the engineering is supposed to ensure that no water escapes this site.

“So I’m happy there’s no contamination being detected at this point going into the lake and into the drinking water. But I have no faith whatsoever that we can rely on the engineering at this site to protect us in any way.”

Cobble Hill Holdings Ltd., which owns the landfill and has a permit to store up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year, says its containment and treatment systems are functioning as designed.

“There has never been a breach of any of our systems,” president Mike Kelly said in an email Tuesday.

Island Health issued the water advisory Friday due to “a suspected overflow of water” from the site.

The advisory warned people against drawing water from the south end of the lake for drinking, bathing, personal hygiene or food preparation.

Island Health said Tuesday that there are no licensed drinking water systems — defined as those serving a business or more than two residences — that draw water from that area of the lake.

A number of private residences however, are licensed by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations to draw water from the lake.

The ministry said there are 187 domestic water licences for Shawnigan Lake, although not all of them are active.

“It is generally assumed that some private residents who draw water from the lake may not properly treat the water; hence the cautionary advisory to not use the water was issued,” Island Health said.

Cowichan Valley NDP MLA Bill Routley called for Polak to shut down the landfill in light of ongoing problems.

“The reality is that when the tests come back and show that there’s contamination, it will be too late,” he said. “That’s when the system has failed.”

Polak, however, said government scientists make decisions about permits free from political interference. “In addition to that, recommendations to the minister with respect to any compliance or enforcement action are also made by government scientists independent of political interference.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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